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Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum: Envisioning a More Equitable Future

“Ultimately, the reason we have not yet told the truth about this history of Black and White America is that telling an ordered history of this nation would mean finally naming America’s commitment to violent, abusive, exploitative, immoral white supremacy, which seeks the absolute control of Black bodies. It would mean doing something about it.” — Austin Channing Brown, author and speaker on racial justice

Melanie Adams, director of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum
Melanie Adams, director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum

This weekend I saw many cities I’ve once called home explode with unresolved tensions brought on by our country’s repeated inability to deal with race and its lasting legacy of inequality. From my time in Los Angeles after the Rodney King incident, to 20 years in St. Louis and the killing of Michael Brown, to my arrival in Minnesota just months after the killing of Philando Castile, I have witnessed the unrest that takes place when the voice of the people is not only ignored but dismissed. In all of these cities, I‘ve worked within my professional field to find ways to address racial inequality by bringing people together in dialogue to help them discover each other’s humanity and hoping it leads to change. Now almost 30 years later and more tragedies that I dare count, I have come to realize that museums need to do more.

In one of my first columns in The Washington Informer, I spoke of my excitement about becoming the director of the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) and joining the southeast D.C. community as a resident. During this period of racial unrest, I am even more committed to the work of the museum and its mission to illuminate and amplify the community’s collective power. This mission distinguishes ACM from traditional museums whose mission is usually focused on “collect, preserve, and share.” ACM does these things as well, but we center our work on the people of the community and allow them to be the authors of their own stories. While most organizations focus on their mission, I would like to focus on ACM’s vision.

Protests that took place in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was shot (Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, photo by (c)Alejandro Orengo)
Protests that took place in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was shot (Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, photo by (c)Alejandro Orengo)

In general, an organization’s mission statement tells you what they are currently doing. In the case of the Anacostia Community Museum, this would be “illuminating and amplifying the community’s collective power.” The vision statement serves as the ultimate goal of the organization, what they would like to accomplish. For ACM, the vision is to “inspire urban communities to activate their collective power for a more equitable future.” A vision is a far-reaching goal that is ambitious and usually unattainable. In today’s climate of discord caused by racial inequality, it is vital for ACM to adopt a sense of urgency to make its vision a reality.

What would a museum like ACM do to create a more equitable future? For over 50 years we have fought against the idea of a single narrative by moving the stories of people of color from the margins of history to the center of the page. We have given voice and humanity to people and experiences in order to illustrate their value and worth within the larger context of our country’s history. We have worked to make society recognize that the experiences of people of color are equal to the experiences of white people and should be treated with the same amount of respect.

As ACM moves into its next 50 years, we need to move beyond just giving voice to communities, but to find ways to move towards an equitable future for all. The people that have taken to the streets over the past week are using their voice (and physical presence) to call for change and to demand equality. As a museum, we can use our resources to begin addressing and dismantling the barriers put in place that prevent true equality from being achieved.

We can and should call out examples of inequalities based on race, whether it is in education, housing, policing or our country’s food systems. We should not only share the stories of inequalities, but also partner with organizations that are working to eliminate them. Through strategic partnerships and a commitment to racial equality, the Anacostia Community Museum can create and implement programs that go beyond encouraging dialogue, but providing communities with the tools to act and create a more equitable future for all.

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